A dancing couple performs the tango on a picture postcard from 1910.

Sensual and scandalous: How tango took the world by storm

On the streets of Buenos Aires, African and European traditions blended into a sexy—and shocking—new dance that eventually became a national treasure.

A dancing couple performs the tango on a picture postcard from 1910.

At the turn of the 20th century, the well-heeled porteños of Buenos Aires, out for an evening in the seedy port neighborhoods along the Río de la Plata, started noticing a dance they had never seen before.

A couple—with their bodies pressed up closely against one another from cheek to rib cage, and the leader’s arm around their partner’s waist—would launch into intricate steps, sinuous yet sharp, with dramatic turns followed by a sudden suggestive pause, which set up another similar series of steps.

News spread about the dance, which people were calling the tango. Accompanied by the melancholy sound of the accordion-like bandoneón, it expressed sadness, passion, and, most shockingly to some, sensuality. To high-society Argentines, accustomed to the polite formality of the waltz, this departure from propriety was made all the more offensive by its low-class origins. The prominent Argentine intellectual and writer Leopoldo Lugones described the dance as a “reptile from the brothel.”

(The waltz was once Vienna's forbidden dance.)

First tango in Paris

What the Argentine bourgeoisie disdained, however, was being enthusiastically embraced by fashionable society on the other side of the world in Paris. The smoldering, sensual dance appeared in the cabarets of Montmartre, and from 1911 to 1914, the French capital was gripped by tango mania. Paris was the first capital of the tango, its springboard to international popularity. The first tango records were made there, and the first schools were opened.

In his book The Memory of the Modern, historian Matt K. Matsuda describes its appeal as “a grasping for energies of revival in a degenerating old world.” There was also the attraction of otherness and the exotic. A French regulation required foreign tango musicians to perform in national costumes, which in the case of Argentina were gaucho outfits that thrilled the audiences. 

At first, surveying the French fascination with what was being called “their” dance, the Argentine elite dug in their heels. “To accept it [the tango] as ours, because it was so labeled in Paris, would be to fall into the most despicable servility,” the newspaper La Nación declared in 1913. But four years later, in the dance academies and bordellos of Buenos Aires, young upper-class men were learning the tango as the dance began to spread to the whole country.

(A dispatch on tango in Buenos Aires.)

It takes many to tango

The origins of tango date back to the end of the 19th century, when Argentina’s booming agriculture-led economy became a magnet to some seven million immigrants between 1870 and 1930. Many of these immigrants came from Spain and Italy, but also from central and eastern Europe.

On the banks of the Río de la Plata, not only in Buenos Aires but also in Montevideo, Uruguay, the Cuban-influenced habanera dances of Spain met with the Viennese waltz, the Andalusian tango (an early tango-flamenco mix), and folk dances from central Europe, such as the polka and the mazurka. These rhythms and sounds blended with the milonga, an Afro-Argentine form of popular dance related to candombe, a local fusion of various African traditions.

Historian Simon Collier, in his book Tango, refers to the first eyewitness description of the dance in 1877, when the African Argentines were seen doing an improvisation of the candombe they called the tango, in which couples danced apart. As Collier tells it, groups of poor compadritos, the street-tough hipsters of Buenos Aires, visited African-Argentine dance venues, brought the dance back to their ramshackle barrios, and incorporated it into the milonga. 

It was in these settings that the first steps of a dance for intertwined couples began to develop. It combined the cuts and breaks of African dances, particularly candombe, with dances imported from Europe.

The compadritos, comprising immigrants and unemployed native-born gauchos, or ranch workers, struggled to find work amid social dislocation. The majority of immigrants were men, which meant competition for female companionship was fierce. The tango was born amid that confusion and hardship and expressed a frustrated search for love, a longing for the past, and the loss of pride and honor. Poet Enrique Santos Discépolo defined tango as a “sad thought that is danced.”

(How ballroom dancing went from elite pastime to dance hall craze)

Sounds of the dance

Musicians initially played a tango on a guitar, violin, and flute, along with a piano, when available. At the beginning of the 20th century, the flute was replaced by the bandoneón, which German immigrants had brought to Argentina around 1835. This instrument would give the dance its signature sound.

As tango began to take root more broadly in Argentina, lyrics became a fundamental part of the songs. The themes of these early works ranged from light and humorous to dark and violent. Other subjects included the city of Buenos Aires and tango itself.

Historians often attribute the start of the tango song to Carlos Gardel’s 1917 “Mi Noche Triste,” the first recorded vocal tango. Gardel may have been French or Uruguayan (his origins are much debated). Wherever his birthplace, he moved to Buenos Aires as a child and grew up in a tenement with his poor, single mother. He began by performing the Creole repertoire, that of the native-born descendants of Spanish colonizers, before turning to tango. With his trademark emotional intensity, he popularized and internationalized the genre.

By the 1920s, the tango could be heard on the radio, on record albums, and in films. Along with Gardel, most of the popular singers were men, such as Agustín Magaldi and Ignacio Corsini. Women singers became quite famous too. Vocalists such as Azucena Maizani and Libertad Lamarque went on to become movie stars in the 1930s and 1940s with the advent of talkies.

From 1925 onward, the orchestras of Julio de Caro, Roberto Firpo, and Osvaldo Fresedo filled ballrooms in Buenos Aires and other cities in Argentina, as well as Montevideo, heralding the golden age of the tango in the region, which continued until the mid-1950s. As a dance, the tango of the ballrooms reflected its Parisian influence. Shaped by European high society, the dance mellowed as it was more widely accepted, like the waltz or polka, losing its edge of compadrito aggressiveness.

Coming to America

It was this Europeanized version of the tango that arrived in the United States. Performers Vernon and Irene Castle introduced the dance to New York audiences in the 1913 Broadway musical The Sunshine Girl. It didn’t take long to catch on: “All New York Now Madly Whirling in the Tango,” read the New York Times headline on January 1, 1914. Other pivotal figures in the American tango story are Hollywood heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, ballroom dancing teacher and entrepreneur Arthur Murray, and bandleader Xavier Cugat.

Although tango’s popularity declined in the U.S. with the arrival of rock-and-roll in the 1950s, in Argentina it took a further blow in 1955 with the military overthrow of President Juan Perón. The new regime banned large public gatherings, which included dances. It was “the beginning of the end of tango’s golden age,” according to Morgan Luker, music professor at Reed College and author of The Tango Machine: Musical Culture in the Age of Expediency.

After the golden age, tango music continued to evolve into a form known as tango nuevo, a fusion of traditional tango with Western art, music, and jazz, led most famously by bandoneón player Astor Piazzolla.

(A local's guide to Montevideo, Uruguay, one of the capitals of tango.)

Since the turn of the 21st century, tango music has been thriving in Argentina, and some artists describe the present moment as a new golden age, Luker says. “The dance especially is very vibrant today,” he adds, not only in Argentina, but also in North America, Europe, and Asia.“There are at least weekly if not nightly tango dances in many ... cities in the United States today.” In 2009, in recognition of the dance as an art form from the Río de la Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay that is fundamental to its identity, UNESCO declared the tango an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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